The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart may be a June feast, but Christian life is not quite right without its daily celebration — a renewed consecration to, unity with, and envelopment in love incarnate.
Or, as Legionary Father Thomas Williams puts it in A Heart Like His: Meditations on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, released in June by Circle Press: “Knowing Jesus Christ means more than knowing when and where he lived, or what he said and did. It means getting to know him more intimately by penetrating into his heart. Knowing him, in turn, leads to loving him, to entering into a friendship with him, and that leads to imitation. But imitating Jesus likewise means more than outward mimicking of his actions. It means allowing the Holy Spirit to make our heart more like his.”
A Heart Like His is presented as a workbook for the month of the solemnity, but to shelve it other months would be to underutilize an inspirational devotional resource, full of religious history, prayer and meditations. It has an accessibility that can have the power to speak to those who want to more intimately know Our Lord in various stages.
I recently spoke to Father Williams about the book and about Our Lord’s most Sacred Heart:
You confess to relics making you squeamish, even after living nearly two decades in Rome. How do you explain the beauty of some of these devotions? What’s the point of kissing or kneeling before a body part of a saintly person? How is the Sacred Heart of Jesus different than the odd-sized skull of St. Agnes in her church at Piazza Navona in Rome?
The word “relic” literally means “what is left behind.” Relics could be bone chips or body parts or even clothing that the saint wore, which serve as poignant reminders of what holy people did and in a way represent their presence with us still.
As important as relics are, however, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is something altogether different. It’s not something he “left behind.” It is his real heart of flesh and blood that beats for each of us. It is the symbol of his true humanity and his love, a love that is not platonic or speculative, but present, personal and passionate.
You write that “Knowing Jesus Christ means more than knowing when and where he lived, or what he said and did. It means getting to know him more intimately by penetrating into his heart.” How the heck do you penetrate into his heart?
Jesus isn’t like Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Churchill. He is more than a historical figure that we read about in textbooks. He is alive today, accessible in a way that no historical figure is.
Because he is real, present and active in our lives, we have a chance to know him in a way that we can know no other person. He makes himself available to us. He reveals his heart to us. He wants us to know him. So when we read the Gospels, for example, we are not reading just words or dead letters. He speaks to each of us personally, since his word is living. To know him we must spend time with him, converse with him, open our lives to him.
To paraphrase a caution of yours from the book: How do you safeguard against the commonplace “What would Jesus do?” becoming “What would I do if I were Jesus?”
It is a common human temptation to project our own opinions and worldview on Jesus. We re-create him in our image instead of letting him fashion our hearts in his image. So for many people, “doing what Jesus would do” simply means appropriating Jesus’ authority for their own decisions and choices. We say, “I don’t think Jesus would do such and such a thing” with no real foundation for this opinion other than our own intuition.
To get beyond this, we need a radical humility. We need to beg Jesus to send us his Holy Spirit and teach us from within. We need to study his life, his words, his actions. We need to open our minds and hearts with docility so that he can teach us and re-model us. Fortunately, we have the sure guidance of the Church in this endeavor, which liberates us from the subjectivism we are all prone to. If our understanding of Jesus and his teaching doesn’t correspond to what the Church teaches, we need the docility to change.
How is devotion to the Sacred Heart a “down-to-earth” devotion?
Catholicism is very earthy. Jesus himself was very “physical.” He chose to be born in a cold stable. He worked with wood. He made wine. He walked long distances. He overturned tables in the Temple. He cured a blind man by first spitting on the ground and making a mud paste to apply to the man’s eyes. He knew when he had been “touched” by a woman with a hemorrhage and power went out from him.
Jesus was far from the esoteric “spiritualism” that forms the core of much Eastern spirituality. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is deeply sacramental — constantly mixing the tangible with the intangible, matter and spirit. Devotion to the Sacred Heart invites us to love here and now, concretely, practically, as Jesus did. Not in some theoretical, spiritualized way, but in all its earthy, gritty reality.
How does it help me know who I am and who I was created to be?
Each of us was created in God’s image and likeness, and in baptism we were adopted and made “sons in the Son.” We were meant to look like Jesus, to think like Jesus, to act like Jesus. He is the perfect human being, what each of us should aspire to. But the resemblance we are called to have is not some external disguise, like a Halloween costume to be put on and taken off, but a change from within. We are called to let him re-forge our hearts so that they will resemble his own.
Why is his heart so important?
The heart represents who a person is at the deepest, truest level. The Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes his personal, passionate love for the Father and for every single one of us. It symbolizes his principles, his convictions, his aspirations, his resolve, his compassion, his tenderness. The heart is what moves us to act and makes us who we are.
How does the Sacred Heart of Jesus relate to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?
Jesus and Mary are always together. You cannot have one without the other, just as you cannot have Jesus without the Church.
Mary leads us to Jesus, but Jesus also delights in our devotion to his Mother. To his beloved apostle John he said: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). She is his gift to us from the cross. The heart of Mary reflects the heart of her son, Jesus. Their hearts beat as one: with the same docility to the Father’s will, the same compassion for sinners, the same desire for God’s Kingdom to come. This is why the Church gives us these two great feasts back to back: the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Are these two devotions of essential importance to priests?
Priests are called in a particular way to model the hearts of Christ and Mary. The faithful have a right to expect from their priests a true and sincere effort to reflect the person of Christ, in all his goodness and truth. Priests are not perfect and are constantly called to conversion, but still have a special responsibility. This is impossible without the constant prayers of the lay faithful for their priests.
“In order to grow in faith and love we Christians need to experience the love of Christ. We need to see it, feel it, grasp it, be overwhelmed by it, immerse ourselves in it. Only the intense experience of being unconditionally loved — by none other than God himself — can enable us to love him and others as we yearn to.” How do we do all that?
The saints — beginning with St. John the Evangelist — have constantly taught that we can only love when we have experienced what it is to be loved. It is only through the experience of God’s overpowering love for us that we, in turn, are empowered to love him and others in return. Love isn’t something we fabricate in ourselves or the result of pure willpower. As St. Paul says, it is the love of God himself that is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Before it is a choice, love is a gift.
Isn’t that the stuff of saints?
Of course. But in the eyes of God, each one of us is a saint in the making. When God looks on us, he sees the saints he created us to be. If only we could think of ourselves in this way! All of us, in the end, have the vocation to sainthood. It is what we were created for.
You write about Jesus in the Gospels, “He always spoke the truth but he didn’t spend time arguing with people out of a need to have to be right. He just went about doing good and fulfilling the mission he was sent to carry out.” What good is the truth if people don’t get that it’s right?
One thing is proclaiming the truth and helping people to grasp it. Another thing altogether is arguing and trying to prove we are right. Jesus said that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth and that “anyone committed to the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37). He wanted everyone to believe and to come to the fullness of the truth, but he wasn’t about to force it on anyone. He made it available for those who wanted it. Jesus quickly recognized whether a person was sincerely seeking the truth or merely posing intellectually and arguing for the sake of it. He had no time for the latter.
The Trinity would be another book — one you might be working on, given how prolific you are — but since you brought it up in the book: If Jesus and God are one with the Holy Spirit, why does Jesus give the Father credit through the Gospels?
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows that he is always aware that everything he has, his very being, comes from the Father, and he delights in giving him credit and “making him shine,” if you will. He loves to glorify the Father. Even though Jesus is consubstantial with the Father, and not created beings as we are, he gives us a marvelous example of humility: Let God shine!
Why is humility and humiliation important for spiritual growth?
Humility is not only important; it is perhaps the most important ingredient for spiritual growth. We are often our own worst enemies. We seek ourselves when we should be seeking God. Our intentions get twisted in the blinking of an eye, and suddenly what we were doing for God and others becomes about ourselves. To know that by ourselves we are nothing and can do nothing is the greatest wisdom, provided it is wedded to the knowledge that with God we can do all things.
We come upon an issue: This book is dated. It’s addressed to the month of June. But it really is and could and should be any 30-day exercise, couldn’t it?
Originally, I intended the book to be a companion for the month of June, but soon realized, as you say, that it could be used profitably for any month of the year. The next edition of the book will eliminate the dates.
“We (rightly) think of God as our provider.” Is there a lesson here: a distinct one, perhaps for men and for women each? Women often think of men as providers, and men often think they have to. Maybe in unrealistic ways? Does the Sacred Heart have a way to heal the chaos that is the relationship between the sexes after decades of ignoring Humanae Vitae?
Undoubtedly, men and women relate to Jesus differently, and this is good and appropriate. God wants each of us to love him as ourselves, not as someone else. Each must love with the temperament he has received, with the particular gifts and qualities, with all the baggage of experiences both painful and wonderful. It’s true that for men it can sometimes be harder to recognize our absolute dependence on God, but pride affects us all, and makes us all want to be our own creators, responsible to no one but ourselves. This isn’t God’s way.
How can Jesus thirst? How can God need anything, least of all us?
It is mysterious to think that God has chosen to need us and that Jesus truly “thirsts” for us. Jesus longs for our love. But he longs for our love so that his love can fill us more completely. Our love doesn’t fill up something lacking in Jesus, but opens us up to the fullness of union that he desires for us.
How can a heart be wise?
You will recall that the First Book of Kings narrated how God asks Solomon what gift he would like as he begins his reign, and Solomon requests wisdom. God is pleased with this petition and says: “I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you” (1 Kings 3:12). Wisdom refers above all to discernment of what truly matters and the ability to discover what is important and pursue it. A fool places too much emphasis on what is worthless and passing, while a wise person seeks true and lasting treasure.
Peace talk frequently brings to mind peace signs, antiwar protests and folk Masses. What is true peace in Christ? What does it mean to call Jesus the Prince of Peace?
The true peace that Jesus came to bring was reconciliation with God. He came to bring God and man together again. He became, in his very person, the bridge uniting God and man, and through his passion and death, destroyed the enmity that kept us apart.
All other peace — whether it be peace of soul or peace among people and among nations — is a consequence of this fundamental peace. The disorder and division that sin caused, Jesus repaired and healed.
Why did you bring Che Guevara into the book?
People love to think of Jesus as a revolutionary. They think of him as a guy who resisted the “system,” rebelled against authority, and put it to “the man.” I try to show that this stereotype just doesn’t hold up. As unpopular as “obedience” is today, it formed the core of Jesus’ response to his Father. He loved the Father and fulfilled his will in all things. But his obedience was the loving obedience of a son, and not the servile obedience of a slave. We cannot expect to be like Christ and then do things “our way.”
What’s the most important thing you learned about the Sacred Heart of Jesus while writing this book?
As I was writing the book I realized over and over again that Jesus is a well that never runs dry. Every day we can learn new things about him, surprising things, wonderful things. We never exhaust the riches of his personality, and his love for us is always new and beautiful. It makes me realize why we will never become bored in heaven. Jesus never grows old or stale. Every day with him is a new discovery and another step in an eternal adventure of love.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.